Captain Edward J. Smith’s reported final words as the Titanic went down were ‘Be British boys, be British’. He was not, as common sense would suggest, providing charades themes to members of the bridge crew nor making an early statement of support for comedy fascists (aka UKIP) but rather commenting on a British man’s most treasured and enduring quality. The stoic denial of personal discomfort, danger or fear and the suppression of outward display of these things. Reserved acceptance of one’s fate with upper lip firmly stiffened against the wind.
This is very much an idea rooted in the age of Empire. It smacks of Kitchener and Clive, of Livingston and Scott, of Baden-Powell and Lord Uxbridge (who, having had his right leg blown mostly off by French cannon fire shouted, ‘By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!” to which Wellington replied “By God, so you have!”). Men who endured hardship, pain and native tribesmen (not unreasonably) attacking them for trying to massacre and/or convert their population.
I would, however, suggest that even these products of overt masculine and perceived cultural superiority would have crumbled at the merest touches of a wizened and aged Thai lady who works in a massage shop.
The Thai massage is something of an odd beast. It is a relaxing event afterwards. At the time it can feel as if you have personally affronted the masseuse in some unknowable way and here is her opportunity for revenge. You’ll lie there contemplating all the bad things you have ever done and whether this is karmic payback.
Many people claim to have been given a Thai massage in their home countries, these are usually pale facsimiles of the real thing. Usually overly gentle and with the use of oils. Like French food, Spanish wine and Dutch pot it is best sampled in its native land.
But even in the Land of Smiles not all massages are created equal. This handy guide (which you can print off at no extra cost) will hopefully ensure that tourists travelling to the Kingdom will be able to understand what the hell is happening to them and how can that tiny old lady exert so much force on my arrrgggghhhhhh.
What is a Thai massage?
A true Thai massage is pain. Crashing, horrific, sweat inducing pain. I used to watch war films where the main guy gets captured and tortured thinking ‘pffft, I could hold out – I play rugby, I know what pain is’. Oh the innocence of youth. Now, all the enemy would have to do is walk in a smiling elderly Thai lady wearing brown fisherman’s pants and a beige t-shirt and I’d be offering up secrets before she had finished saying sawadee ka.
But isn’t it supposed to be nice?
Oh foolish farang. You assumed that because it had ‘massage’ in the title that you would have a nice relaxing time of it. Nope. If you wanted nice and relaxing you should have asked for an oil massage. If it’s really bad you can bite the mat or table your lying on.
Well, why do you have them then?
Because honestly, there is nothing like it when they finish. All of the knots in your body are gone and you float about for about an hour feeling like rubber. This is a good thing.
What are the different types of massage places I can go to?
Thai massage parlours break down into roughly three types (with some crossover).
Type One: Front For a Knocking Shop.
Obviously Thailand (Pattaya and Bangkok in particular) has a reputation for being a bit on the seedy side. This reputation is utterly deserved as there a number of areas where very rude things occur. Most of the time its easy enough to avoid but sometimes you can get caught unawares. Signs that you are in a brothel rather than a place to get a massage are:
1) The ‘masseuses’ are wearing very little clothing and/or are naked.
2) They serve alcoholic drinks.
3) They insist on massaging your genitals as a priority.
I would suggest leaving very quickly unless that’s your thing. I mean, I don’t want to judge but, really?
Type Two: In An International Hotel.
These are often very expensive and not really true to the actual thing. The problem comes with the staff obviously not wanting to upset anyone or get into trouble.
Picture the scene, some overweight American businessman is on his first trip to the kingdom and stops at the hotel spa thinking it will help him relax and ease him over the jet-lag so he can be ready for that big meeting tomorrow. He changes reluctantly into the pyjamas that have been provided which, as they are too small for his corpulent frame, have the effect of making him look like an obese five-year-old.
The masseuse, a four-foot-nothing sixty year old from Isan, looks at the lump of rolling flesh laid out on the table, nods determinedly, cracks her knuckles and heroically starts to manipulate Gigantor’s legs.
Barely thirty seconds pass before El Chubbster yells out confused and in pain. His sickening screams interrupt the tranquil pling, plong music and brings the hotel manager scampering from his office on the fourteenth floor.
The manager arrives to see the rolling lard arse curled up in the corner of the room, towel pulled up over his supine and quivering form, arm outstretched and finger trembling slightly, pointing towards the masseuse.
“She hurt me” he says.
Very shortly the manager of the hotel is offering free drinks which cost him money, the American businessman feels that his meeting won’t go well because he’s upset and that will cost him money and the masseuse is without a job which means she can no longer support the family farm back in Isan. Oldest granddaughter might have to head to Type One massage parlour to make ends meet.
Why run the risk? Just give the stupid farang a gentle rub down and call it a Thai massage. And charge over a thousand baht for it.
Type Three: The Real Deal.
This is where you get to pit your strength of will against the machinations of an elderly Thai lady.
You’ll walk in and a heady mixture of lemongrass and Tiger Balm will hit your nostrils. I think this will always be the smell that reminds of Thailand for two reasons. Firstly, it’s pretty unique. Secondly, it’s a damn sight more appealing than a festering khlong. Generally you’ll get the option of a one or two hour massage. Accept this will hurt and go for two hours. It should cost you no more than 500 baht (350 ish for one hour). You’ll be led to a small darkened cubicle with a soft mattress or mat on the floor (some places will wash your feet at this point too). Soft pyjamas will lie there and you change into them. Just place your clothes to the side of the mat and lie down facing the floor.
You’ll have time in the gloom to just think and listen to the gentle music that will undoubtedly be being played. Use this time to enjoy not feeling any discomfort. Trust me on this.
Shortly, a Thai (usually) lady will come in, say sawadee ka and wai you. Gently but firmly she will pull on your legs and push your ankles down. She may also briefly rub your back. This is (I presume) to identify where you are most tight so they can spend the most time on that area. You’ll wish they didn’t but they will.
Then try to relax as two hours passes, flitting between brutal agony and utter bliss. I promise you that you’ll feel incredible afterwards. There is also a moment of transcendence when you try to disassociate the physical pain you feel with your body, attempting to make it academic. “Oh, look at that,” you’ll say to yourself “she has most of her elbow in my inner thigh. That certainly smarts.” Or “Humm, I’ve never before seen that side of my leg without a mirror. How curious.” Occasionally you may even say “arrgghhhhhhh”.
Just remember to relax, breath and be British.